Spiritual Idolatry

Though the term is a fairly familiar one within the context of the church and Christianity, few people really understand what spiritual idolatry is, meaning its true nature. In this article we are going to consider the matter of spiritual idolatry and what it is from a Biblical standpoint.

To merely call idolatry "sin," though it certainly is, somehow seems an extreme understatement, for it is the ultimate affront unto God. Yet, arguably, it is the most pervasive sin of all today among professing believers. Contributing to the prevalence of idolatry within Christendom, no doubt, is the common perception by many that idolatry is something that occurs only in underdeveloped, far-away, foreign lands, or that it is something relegated mostly to ancient civilizations of past ages, while nothing could be further from the truth.

In Galatians 5:20, the Apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit listed "idolatry" as one of the fundamental elements of evil comprising the carnal nature, or sin nature, which actually is the nature of the devil himself, and which is also alluded to as the "spirit of disobedience" — the "spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). So, in other words, because the carnal nature is common to every human, idolatry, then, is a basic tendency of every person ever born.

In simplistic terms, idolatry is making something or someone that to which we look to bring happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment, and all the things only God is supposed to provide us, which in essence is the definition of a false god.

To put it another way, idolatry is fashioning and forming false gods, or idols, out of one's own vain imaginations. Indeed, idols are really always imaginary, existing solely in the human mind and thoughts. Again by inspiration of the Spirit, in another place, Paul states categorically that those possessing true Spiritual knowledge and understanding "know that there is no such thing as an idol (false god), and that there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). False gods are false because they really do not exist, except in the mind of the idolater.

Idolatry in actuality then is merely the product of human thinking, manufactured in the factory of the human mind. It is the act of creating an abstract god within the deep, dark void of human reasoning. At bottom, all idolatry is "mind-idolatry," for it is primarily in the mind that all idolatry exists. In a nutshell, the basis of idolatry is what I refer to as "stinkin' thinkin'."

Moreover, the ilk of idolatry which bona fide believers are most guilty of committing even routinely, though unwittingly, is the idolatry of holding to false and contrived ideas about God that in fact are wholly incongruous with what He Himself has revealed in His Word concerning His Divine Nature, Will, and Ways. When it is all distilled down, idolatry is the ultimate form of arrogance and self-righteousness, for it supplants God and His Word, Will, and Way, and puts in His place a false, humanly formed and fashioned god, one made in our own image and after our own likeness, to affirm and hallow our own humanly contrived ideas and concepts. Thus, idolatry, in my view, is the ultimate offense that the human heart can commit against a Holy and Sovereign God.

A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), who was the pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Toronto and Chicago, for a number of years was also editor of the CMA's official organ, Alliance Weekly, as well as a prolific author of books. His spiritual acumen was so highly regarded by his colleagues that many esteemed him a twentieth-century prophet. Despite all his prodigious achievements, he was perhaps best known for his personal intimacy with God, and his book, The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper & Row), was a collection of some of his most outstanding messages related to knowing God in personal intimacy. So profound and insightful are his comments regarding the subject of idolatry, as well as exquisitely and eloquently articulated, that they could scarcely be improved upon, making direct quotation the only fitting means of conveyance. The following are excerpts of his commentary, the chronology of which I have taken the liberty of rearranging in order to better serve our purposes here:

"Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it."

"The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place. 'When they knew God,' wrote Paul, 'they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.'"

"Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is — in itself a monstrous sin — and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness."

"A god begotten in the shadows of a fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God."

"Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true."

"Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it."

All false doctrine is, in essence, an assemblage of "wrong ideas about God" and "perverted notions about God," as Tozer put it. How profound and Scriptural is his statement: "Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous," for "polluted waters" is a metaphor evoked in Scripture to represent false teaching. Indeed, false teaching is by no means, as some seem to believe, a harmless or inconsequential phenomenon, but rather polluted waters can be lethal, both in the natural and the spiritual. False teaching, which in essence is substituting human ideas and sophistry for the absolute Truth of God's Mind, in fact IS idolatry.

Idolatry and false teaching are synonymous terms. Idolatry always has associated with it some form of false teaching, and false teaching is always an ilk of idolatry. As Tozer so brilliantly articulated it: "The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true." In other words, the person engaging in idolatry simply contrives his own doctrine concerning spiritual matters and the composition of "truth," and conducts his life based on those determinations even though they are not congruous with the real Truth which emanates from and is defined by God as Truth in His Word.

Over the course of Church history, change within the Church has been a slow—at times agonizingly slow—process. Despite the great strides the Church has made since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 A.D. in ridding false teaching, more yet remains. And false doctrine is far from being the innocuous matter it is viewed as being by many professing believers today. The 21st Century Church needs to accept the responsibility incumbent upon it to point out and repudiate false doctrine of whatever sort and wherever it may be found, for truly false doctrine inherently is spiritual idolatry of the highest order.

[Original Post Date on Real Truth Digest E-zine: 10/15/99]

[Note: This article is adapted from the book, CHARISMATIC CAPTIVATION, by Steven Lambert. The book exposes the widespread problem of authoritarian abuse in Neo-Pentecostal church-groups, and explains how it became infused into the very fabric, foundation, and functions of the Neo-Pentecostal church arising out of a false movement known as the Discipleship/Shepherding Movement (1970-77). References to "Discipleship" or "Shepherding" (and variables) doctrines, teachings, proponents and participants, and so forth, allude to those pertinences that arose out of that movement.]

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One Response to “Spiritual Idolatry”

  1. Len Kloth says:

    ' Spiritual authority' This is one of the books that was used as a foundation for the Shepherding movement back in the 80's.-here are specifics;

    Below are a few statements in this book that I don't see New Testament support for.

    Page 22-23 under "First Lesson a Worker Should Learn Is Obey Authority": We are under men's authority as well as having men under our authority. This is our position. Even the Lord Jesus on earth was subject not only to God but also to other's authority... A Christian worker ought to know who is above him. Some do not know who are the authorities above them, hence they do not obey. We should not be occupied with right or wrong, good or evil; rather should we know who is the authority above us. Once we learn to whom we must be subject, we naturally find our place in the body.

    Page 71 under "Be Fearlessly Subject to Delegated Authority": People will perhaps argue, "What if the authority is wrong?" The answer is, If God dares to entrust His authority to men, then we can dare to obey. Whether the one in authority is right or wrong does not concern us, since he has to be responsible directly to God. The obedient needs only to obey; the Lord will not hold us responsible for any mistaken obedience, rather will He hold the delegated authority responsible for his erroneous act. Insubordination, however, is rebellion, and for this the one under authority must answer to God.

    Page 180-181 under "To Be in Authority Often Means Loneliness": In learning to be in authority we ought to be sanctified before brothers and sisters. Many legitimate things we cannot do and many lawful words we cannot speak. We must be sanctified both in words and in sentiments. According to ourselves we take a certain attitude, but among God's children we will be sanctified. Even our fellowship with brothers and sisters must have a limit beyond which we will neither be casual nor frivolous. We should rather lose our liberty, we rather will be lonely. Loneliness is the mark of authority... The opposite of holiness is commonness, not sin. To be sanctified is to be different from others....The sparrows fly in flocks, whereas the eagles fly singly....To be in authority requires restraint; one must sanctify himself. Others may but you cannot; others may speak, but you cannot....You may feel lonely and miss the fervor of the crowd; nevertheless, you dare not mingle with the brothers and sisters in joking and jesting. This is the price of authority. Unless we sanctify ourselves like our Lord we are not qualified to be in authority.

    Page 182-183 under "To Be in Authority Requires Restraining One's Affections": I will show myself holy among those who are near me."...There is a much severer discipline applied to them than to the people in general.... As has already been mentioned, the opposite of holiness is commonness. Holiness means that others may, but I cannot. What the disciples may do, the Lord does not. What other brothers may do, those in authority cannot do. Even lawful affection needs to be put under control; otherwise death can be the consequence. The people of Israel died because of their sins, but priests may die because of not being sanctified....Those who serve are anointed by God. They should sacrifice their own affections, denying even legitimate ones. All who would maintain God's authority must know how to oppose their own feelings, how to lay aside the deepest of their affections towards their relatives, friends and loved ones. The demand of God is exacting: unless one lays aside his own affections he cannot serve God. He who is sanctified is God's servant; he who is not sanctified is a common person.

    Page 184 under "Sanctified in Life and Enjoyment": It is therefore a matter of enjoyment. Others may enjoy, but we cannot. Others may rejoice in pleasures (for wine speaks of rejoicing), but we cannot. People serving God are under discipline that they may be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.... The higher the office, the stricter the demand. The degree of nearness to God becomes the degree of His demand. Of him to whom God entrusts more, the more will He demand. God especially concerned with whether of not His servants have sanctified themselves.

    Page 185 under "Authority Is Based on Sanctification": Authority has its foundation in sanctification... You cannot represent God if you maintain very liberal and loose communication with the people. The higher the authority the greater the separation.

    Page 191 under the chapter "The Conditions for Being Delegated Authorities": To be in authority is costly; such ones need to be sanctified from the rest and be ready for a lonely life.... As soon as one becomes too common, he is dropped from the work. His usefulness is gone, and his authority is lost.

    Its about controlling people, legalism, a very dangerious form of fundamentalism

    King George 111 used Romans 13 against the colonists in the revolution. Romans 13 was the bases of 'divine right of kings' to rebel against them, was to rebel against God, a nifty arrangement. He was told "If Kings rule by divine right, then let them rule in heaven!"-Thomas Jefferson

    Watchman nee's book is a return to the authoritarian legalism of 'kings,' dangerous, medieval, scary.

    I know who I would agree with, between Watchman Nee, and Jefferson!


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